With its iconic spinning water wheel, shoe-sinking carpet and fake greenery hanging from the ceiling like it did at Grandma’s house, the Dispensary Lounge would hardly seem to be a cool jazz hang. But it certainly is when the Julian Tanaka Quartet is on its stage.
Jazz enthusiasts from all demographics gather one Wednesday each month to catch that act, its guest instrumentalist and even fellow audience members performing two sets of non-commercial jazz. Tanaka and his crew—made up of mostly graduates from UNLV and/or Las Vegas Academy’s esteemed jazz programs—have played the monthly gig for nearly two years, and they’re still doing new things with it.
“I feel every time we play here, I personally evolve as a musician because I have to do a ton of work,” Tanaka says. “I have to make sure I know the stuff as best I can; I’m leading the group. I also think we’ve evolved as a group because we discover different dimensions every time we play.”
They won’t be regularly doing so for long, however. Tanaka, considered one of the best players of the genre in Las Vegas, begins his master’s program in August at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. So far, the bandleader only promises additional sets in July and August.
Jazz fans would be wise to attend those, if the May 21 performance is any indication. The quartet played a couple of originals and covered hard-bopper Lee Morgan, free/funk pioneer Herbie Hancock and fusion act Yellowjackets, to name a few. Given the complexity of the arrangements and craft on display, there’s no mistaking how seriously the musicians take this gig.
But like the one-liners that follow Tanaka’s song introductions, they also infuse the residency with some liveliness and spontaneity. “We’re playing to play,” he says. “But there’s a great phrase I was reminded of the other day: If you’re gonna f*ck around, f*ck around, but don’t f*ck around. That’s what I’m going for!”